World

Yemen rival factions position heavy armour

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers belonging to rival factions deployed in Yemen's capital Monday, after a military commander of an armoured division announced his defection to protesters in Sanaa's central square who are calling for the president's ouster.

Top general among 3 army commanders defecting to join opposition

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers belonging to rival factions deployed in Yemen's capital Monday, after a military commander of an armoured division announced his defection to protesters in Sanaa's central square who are calling for the president's ouster.

Maj.-Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the 1st Armoured Division, was one of three senior army commanders who defected, withdrawing support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Al-Ahmar also directed tanks to Yemen's state television building, the Central Bank and the Defence Ministry.

Meanwhile, the Republican Guards, a force led by Saleh's son Ahmed, deployed at least a dozen tanks and armoured personnel carriers outside the presidential palace.

The deployment of al-Ahmar's troops in Sanaa was greeted by jubilation from protesters, many of whom posed with soldiers for photographs, greeted them with military style salutes or offered them roses.

Saleh appears to face a choice of either stepping down or waging a dramatically more violent campaign against strengthening opponents. The president continues to have the loyalty of at least some of Yemen's military. Defence Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed said on television that the armed forces would counter any plots against "constitutional legitimacy" and "democracy."

Ahmed spoke after a meeting of the National Defence Council, which is led by Saleh and includes the prime minister, the defence and information ministers as well as the intelligence chief.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seen during a media conference in Sanaa, March 18, has lost support from his own tribe and among the military. (Hani Mohammed/Associated Press )

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé called Saleh's resignation "unavoidable" and pledged "support to all those that fight for democracy."

With the high-level defections, it appeared Saleh's support was eroding from every power base in the nation — his own tribe called on him to step down, he fired his entire cabinet  ahead of what one government official said was a planned mass resignation, and his ambassador to the UN and human rights minister quit.

All three officers who defected Monday belong to Saleh's Hashid tribe. A Hashid leader said the tribe, eager to keep the president's job for one of its own, was rallying behind al-Ahmar as a possible replacement for Saleh.

The leader spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Saleh's crackdown on a month-long uprising against his rule has grown increasingly violent in recent days, suggesting he is becoming more fearful that the unprecedented street protests could unravel his three-decade grip on power in this volatile and impoverished nation.

He also tried unsuccessfully to calm the protest by pulling back riot police.

The two other officers to defect are Mohammed Ali Mohsen and Hameed al-Qusaibi, who both have the rank of brigadier. Yemen's ambassadors to Jordan, Syria and parliament's deputy speaker also announced Monday they were supporting the opposition, further undermining Saleh's weakening authority.

News of the defections came one day after crowds flooded cities and towns across Yemen to mourn dozens of protesters killed Friday when Saleh's security forces opened fire from rooftops  on a demonstration in Sanaa.

7-year armed rebellion

Saleh and his weak government have faced down many serious challenges, often forging fragile alliances with restive tribes to extend power beyond the capital, Sanaa. Most recently, he has battled a seven-year armed rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and an al-Qaeda offshoot that is of great concern to the U.S.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which formed in January 2009, has moved beyond regional aims and attacked the West, including sending a suicide bomber who tried to down a U.S.-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The device failed to detonate properly.

Yemen is also home to U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have offered inspiration to those attacking the U.S., including army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people and wounding dozens in a 2009 shootout at Fort Hood, Texas.

Al-Ahmar has been close to Saleh for most of the 32 years the Yemeni president has been in power. He is a veteran of the 1994 civil war that saw Saleh's army suppress an attempt by southern Yemen to secede. Al-Ahmar also fought in recent years against Shia rebels in the north of the country.

Al-Ahmar announced his defection in a message delivered by a close aide to the protest leaders at the Sanaa square that has for weeks been the epicentre of their movement.

With files from The Associated Press